It’s not only you who lives in your body, trillions of microbes are also along for the ride! They live on your skin, in your mouth and deep inside your gut. Collectively known as the microbiome, these organisms include bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea.
Invisible to the naked eye, you are literally covered head to toe in these tiny microbes all working to keep your body in check. The majority though live in your gut, in particular the part where your poo is formed known as the large intestine or colon. Collectively they are referred to as your gut microbiome.
What your poo can say about you
To study the gut microbiome scientists have been collecting poo samples from volunteers across the world. A project started by Dr Rob Knight called the American Gut Project, countries across the globe are now collaborating with the study. In the UK the British Gut project has joined forces with Dr Knight to study the microbiome. Here are 9 things they have found out so far:
1. Your gut microbiome is unique.
According to Professor Tim Spector who leads British Gut, you can tell more about a person from their poo than their DNA. He reveals while we share 99.9 per cent of our DNA with others, we only ever have about 10 to 20 per cent of our gut bacteria in common.
We inherit some of our gut bacteria from our mother in the womb, during birth and through breast milk but it is mostly affected by the food you eat, your lifestyle and the environment you live in. As a result, each of us has a mix of microbes in our gut that is as unique as our fingerprint.
2. Your microbes digest the food that you can’t.
Whatever you eat or drink gets broken down in your stomach into a sloppy soup like mixture called chyme. This travels to the small intestine to be digested and the nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Anything that can’t be absorbed in the small intestine is pushed down into your large intestine where it is greeted by an army of microbes ready to get to work. This is mostly plant fibre that has micronutrients including vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients locked within it, ready to be released by your microbes.
3. The more the merrier.
Up to half the weight of your poo can contain microbes. By studying poo samples scientists can find out how many different species of microbes live in your gut. They have found the greater the assortment of microbes in your poo the healthier you will be. On the other hand, the less varied the population of microbes you have, the less healthy you are likely to be.
4. Diversity of plants is the key to health.
There are over a 1000 different species of gut bacteria that scientists know about. We need a variety of different species of bacteria to perform different roles including nutrient supply, vitamin production and protection from pathogens.
Eating a variety of plants each week including fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds will help cultivate a diverse population of microbes.
5. Microbes help optimise your immune system.
When your gut microbes digest plant fibre they release enzymes to break it down. In addition to the functions listed above they also create substances that enhance your immune system and prevent it from overreacting, helping you to stay fit and healthy. The more microbes you have the more substances known as Short Chain Fatty Acids they will produce and the greater your health will be.
6. Junk food kills the good bacteria and feeds the bad guys.
Whilst the majority of your microbes are friendly, a very small minority are bad. The chemicals in junk food, particularly emulsifiers, kill off good bacteria and cause inflammation.
Highly processed foods are also missing what your friendly microbes love, plant fibre. If they don’t get fed regularly, they grow weak and die off. This double whammy can lead to a proliferation of bad bacteria which gives rise to ailments such as food allergies, obesity and diabetes.
7. Microbes can influence how you think!
They produce over 30 brain chemicals called neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine that influence your mood and behaviour. A healthy gut microbiome can help you feel good, keep your mind sharp and make you more energetic. On the flip side, a compromised gut microbiome could lead to less energy, depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
8. Antibiotics can impair the gut microbiome.
There is no doubt that antibiotics have saved millions of lives since their introduction; however, overuse can disrupt the composition of the microbiome and hamper it from performing its vital functions.
Antibiotics are also present in conventional foods, both plant and animal foods can contain traces of antibiotics. Eating organic where possible can help avoid this exposure.
9. Eating fermented foods can boost your army of friendly microbes.
An easy way to boost your gut microbe population is to eat fermented foods. These foods contain live strains of bacteria that are beneficial to your health. Foods to try include sourdough bread, sauerkraut and fermented tofu. If you can tolerate dairy products, live yoghurt and cheese are also fermented foods and both contain beneficial bacteria.
If you want to feel good, have lots of energy and avoid falling ill you need a diverse composition of microbes in your gut.
To create a varied population, you need to eat an assortment of different plants each week, avoid overuse of antibiotics and stay away from highly-processed foods, you don’t want to kill your new population of microbes with emulsifiers and additives!
Nourishing you and your microbes starts in the kitchen. It’s about getting back to basics and cooking meals from scratch with real ingredients. To help you with this I will be sharing cooking tips and new recipes that I hope you and your friendly microbes will enjoy.
Thinking of them as your new pets may help you care for them. Know if you treat your microbes well, they will be good to you too.
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
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Eat to Beat Disease Dr William Li